Tobias Putrih – Paradise
Pinksummer: Introducing your work in the Frankfurt Manifesta catalogue (2002), you wrote: “I’m learning to make an object and that is hard work for me, because in most cases, I feel much better if the object doesn’t exist.” This negative thought is one echo of the “big refusal” so often present in your work; others are deconstructive systems, the use of inexpensive materials, and an interest in social spaces like cinemas that induce daydreams and/or collective illusion. (Here one thinks specifically of Venetian Atmospheric, the project you will present as the Slovenian entry at the 52nd Venice Biennale).
Marcuse asserted that in modern society technological progress has evolved to the point where it is able to include in its own systems those forces that are antagonistic towards it; further, this inclusion takes place not through coercion but through psychological and cultural control.
What do you mean when you say that in most of the cases it would be better if the object didn’t exist?
Tobias Putrih: I simply didn’t know why I should produce another object and yet at the same time I found myself studying sculpture. Perhaps it was this very doubt – itself a kind of ethics – that made the search for the possibility of an object really intriguing. But its immediate consequence was that almost everything I built would begin to fall apart. To build, one has to follow the rules of gravity. There is no way around it. I was afraid that I would end up with big, heavy objects and that eventually I would be stuck with them. What could I do with such objects? How the hell could I sell them? And you can’t simply throw something big and heavy in a trash bin.
You have to pay for disposal. In that sense I think all material objects have their own economy: how they can be made, how they can be kept and how they can be destroyed. And questioning such an economic cycle defines the production of an object even more than some broad conceptual or theoretical framework. Theory is hardly a source for an object; if the economy doesn’t support its production no theory can help you.
Now after a few years I feel much better about producing objects. I think I found a way to deal with an object in a normal, less confrontational way. And also I realized that I sleep much better if I have a feeling that my work has some kind of functional, practical value. It’s not necessarily about being directly functional but about proposing abstract concepts that can be developed into useful solutions.
With my cinema projects I try to re-think the mechanisms of psychological and cultural control you mentioned. I’m curious about what it takes to hijack them. What does it take to love a mechanism so much that you’re able to play with it, to use it to express a different message? Are you familiar with Miguel Sabido’s take on the Mexican soap opera? He manipulated the popular genre and used it to inform people about real problems like safe sex, contraception etc.
He was no revolutionary, just a guy with a practical solution to a local problem whose productions became absolute hits. In the end they were hugely profitable, but Sabido was also able to change something. To be clear his example is not about art; it’s about the proposal of an abstract concept and about business. I think his is a very refreshing perspective.
P: Your work, together with that of other artists of your generation (among them some that work with pinksummer like Ceal Floyer or Sancho Silva, with whom you realised the project in Luxembourg for the inauguration of Mudam), focuses on the distortion of perception and the destabilization of categories. For Adorno, avant-garde art in a modern society has a critical function, if not a direct functional purpose.
He perceived the aesthetic as a movement against morbid concepts of reason, against a rationality that has become an instrument of a dominating global administration that practices (and induces) a new and debilitating level of barbarity. Adorno was thinking in particular of Samuel Beckett, who never writes about modern society’s pitfalls in explicit terms but rather demonstrates their effects by representing the absurdity of some forms of communication. Do you believe in the social function of art? When modernism is your starting point, what does it represent for you?
T.P: I guess art has some kind of social function. But on the other hand I think art has the same problem that science does. You would expect that the average person who opens the magazines Artforum or Science would understand their content. But without a strong familiarity with the greater context of contemporary art or science – and it takes substantial time and effort to become familiar – I’m not so sure one can get a lot of information reading those prestigious publications. I think both art and the applied and theoretical sciences propose and test abstract concepts. If they try to engage people from outside the field they do so as an example or to experiment.
There are many practical fields that use the kind of basic, abstract knowledge reflected in art. These fields have less experimental freedom but more social impact. And of course modernity showed that knowledge can get dispersed and specialized to the point of absurdity. But that’s exactly what interests me: the Beckett-like meltdown of any given system of specialization.
P: It seems to us that your work has a dualistic systemic feature: on the one hand you use a deconstructive method to understand an object that already exists, to make it yours, to replay its logic in reverse when contemporary society asks only that we consume the object, or even better that the object is simply bought, and compulsively; but on the other hand this negative process has become a way for you to make new things, to construct an object (a sculpture, an architectural installation), an organic methodology that includes ideas of time, development, and progress.
We are thinking specifically of the Macula series of stacked cardboard sculptures, whose constructive process you documented in a video in which the geometric rationality of a perfect circle adapts to the development of a biomorphic event. Tell us something regarding the influence of the writings of Buckminster Fuller and Robert Smithson on your work, and how it relates to ideas of nature and responsibility as they’re expressed in Fuller’s concept of “livingry,” which also extends to future generations.
T.P: The Macula series was a test with which I tried to observe the dynamics of various people tracing a shape. One person started by tracing a circle and passing the tracing to another person, and so on and so on. I was interested in the accumulation of mistakes. It was a kind of quasi-statistical experiment without real statistics. The result was an object whose cardboard layers are cut according to these traced lines. I might say that many of my works deal with resolution. For example, in this case if each person traced the circle perfectly, the resolution of the experiment, that is to say the object, would be a perfect tube.
Resolution is also a key factor when one observes a model or a maquette. In that sense I consider the Macula objects to be proto-maquettes, models of a non-landscape. Here there might be some connection with Smithson’s “entropic landscape.” My relationship to Fuller is quite ambivalent. Yes, there are his holistic concepts like “Spaceship Earth” and his modular living units. But a lot of this stuff was simply the consequence of post-war optimism. Sometimes I have a hard time translating those ideas.
P: In 1920 El Lissitzky wrote about Proun, “We gave life to it with a purpose: the creative construction of forms (and, by consequence, the conquest of space) through the economic construction of the transformed material.” We are curious about Unity (after Wolkenbuegel by El Lissitzky), the sculpture you showed at Max Protetch in 2003. You built that work with egg cartons and also with some eggs.
The egg represents potential. It seems that seen in the context of your work the most successful concepts are those that resemble models, unfinished structures that are autonomous, independent, and still open to new possibilities. Do you believe that the ethics of revolution, the ethics of transformation, and perhaps even the ethics of utopia have to conserve some sense of dynamism?
T.P: The basic idea of utopia is to generate hope for a better tomorrow. But even though – perhaps precisely because – such a statement sounds cliché maybe it is the only definition that makes sense. I like Groys’ position on this kind of definition, in which apologizing for being unable to offer a definitive critique should itself be read as a critique. It sounds like a compromise but it’s a good compromise that gives you the freedom to do something pleasurable and perfectly irrelevant. One has to accept the fact of art’s impotency in order to start solving bizarre, abstract or local problems.
P: Tell us something regarding Paradise, the project you will present at pinksummer. Why Paradise?
T.P: Loew’s Paradise in the Bronx was John Eberson’s last grand atmospheric theatre. In a way it marked the decline of the golden era of movie production of the late 1920s. Can you imagine? It was the year of the Wall Street crash and those people were building one of the most opulent and excessive cinema auditoriums in America. The cost for the stuffed birds and fake trees and plants alone was more than $10,000, which was quite a lot of money back then. I was amazed how far people could go simply because they thought that it was a good time to make money on entertainment.
Moviegoers were looking for an escape from their everyday lives and they got it big time for the price of a pretty cheap ticket. With these endeavours it’s always a question of how, why and with what purpose to manipulate. Movie theatres were pure business concepts, essentially money machines.
But the left in Europe never realized that you can use such a business model and subvert it so that it performs whatever function you like. This is also the reason why socialism became out of touch with ordinary people. You can’t force people to think your way; you have to give them what they want and manipulate the content. My performance at pinksummer was developed while I was doing production tests for the cinema pavilion I’ll build as the Slovenian national pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
The lines drawn on the floor of the gallery mark the floor plan of the cinema pavilion. I wanted to test the dimensions of the space and their relation to human scale so I asked my assistant to build a simple structure that would show the parameters of the space according to the size of a human body. They sent me really interesting images, and I thought these tests might be the perfect starting point for a performance.